Last week, the engine on NASA’s brand new Ares 1-X flamed into life and the oddly thin white tube slowly raised itself from the launchpad. It accelerated impressively quickly and arced into the blue Florida sky. Within about two minutes it was travelling at almost five times the speed of sound.
Aiming high (picture courtesy of NASA).
Right on cue, explosive bolts fired to initiate stage separation. But that’s when things began to go wrong. The booster and payload stages unexpectedly started a slow tumble as they lost speed and fell to earth. Then, on its descent, only one of the three parachutes deployed properly and the booster was badly dented as it smacked into the Atlantic ocean.
The bittersweet outcome of this test firing reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s famous saying: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”.
The scientists and engineers at NASA may draw some consolation from this as they examine their precious but damaged booster and wait, breath bated, for the US government to decide just how committed it is to the Ares program.
But such intimate mixtures of success and failure, it struck me, are part and parcel of a life in science. Our sense of achievement does not endure very long.
Or maybe it’s just me? I recently basked momentarily in the glow of the news that our latest paper had been accepted for publication. It was a great result — a new structure of a viral protease-peptide complex — and one that my group has worked hard to achieve and is justly proud of. But before I had even received the proofs I could already see the dark lineaments of looming deadlines and hear them growling for my attention. They are relentless. I have lectures to prepare, references to compose, accounts to manage, manuscripts to review, grant applications to get sorted, more papers to write. The buzz of our success was quickly dulled, in my mind at least. All I could think of this week were the jobs not done, the targets not met, and the time that I don’t have available to do the things that I usually love about this job. I felt dented, out of shape.
And so, blinded by the minutiae of everyday preoccupations as I was rushing from lecture theatre to undergraduate office last Wednesday, I was arrested briefly by the sight of a poster announcing that 4th November was National Stress Awareness Day.
“Don’t miss out!” trumpeted the cheery but bizarre tagline across the bottom of the notice.
Don’t worry friend, I told myself grimly, I’m getting my share.
But then I thought, why am I subjecting myself to this? Being grumpy about my job is just an attitude of mind. Isn’t it?
This line of thought may have been triggered by a video of a TED talk that I saw recently given by the designer Stefan Sagmeister. Sagmeister seems to have developed a much healthier attitude to work than the one that assaulted me this past week. His presentation is called “The Power of Time Off” and I thought it fascinating. The first 4 mins or so are the highlight and deliver the central message, which is that time away from work can be enormously re-energising. (But if you ‘re the least bit interested in design the rest of the video is also worth a look.)
Sagemeiter on stage.
Now all I have to do is figure out a way to reach escape velocity.